TEHRAN, Iran — Ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq weeks ago, tens of thousands of Yazidis have been displaced from their homes. Many fled to nearby Sinjar mountain without basic living necessities, causing what reporters have dubbed a humanitarian crisis. Due to both foreign – including American – and local aid, the situation in Sinjar has improved.
This does not, however, preclude the possibility of ISIS aggression in the surrounding area. ISIS’ pace is unlikely to falter, and this raises an important question: how should the U.S. be involved in the future?
The Yazidis are an ethnoreligious minority, living primarily in northern Iraq before ISIS’s attack on the region. Now, Sinjar’s population, once including nearly 308,000 people, has dwindled as at least 200,000 refugees have gone northwards to Sinjar mountain or to other cities in Iraq, such as Dohuk governorate and Ninewah.
The living conditions on Sinjar mountain are particularly abject, as people there are without reliable sources of water, food, shelter or medical care. Will Parks, the United Nations Children’s Fund chief officer in Iraq, concluded that there are at least 50,000 people, half of which are children, barely surviving on the mountain’s summit.
In fact, there have been 40 confirmed deaths of children due to dehydration, but many more unconfirmed deaths are likely to have occurred.
For days now, however, despite ISIS’s continued expansion in northern Iraq, the plight of the Yazidis has become less severe. Two days ago, President Obama made an announcement in which he praised the “professionalism and skill” of the United States military who has been dropping humanitarian aid and escorting refugees to safety from Sinjar mountain.
These efforts have saved numerous lives and may finally be unnecessary, Obama continued to suggest. He concluded that the situation on Sinjar has greatly improved, proven as most Yazidis have been able to escape.
Both the U.S. airstrikes on ISIS agents surrounding the mountain and the humanitarian aid drops to refugees have allowed “thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon Press Secretary.
Yet the conflict isn’t over. Assuming ISIS continues to act aggressively, by threatening Iraqi Kurdistan and claiming water dams and oil fields for income and war resources, the United States will be put in a position to once again contribute humanitarian aid and, if necessary, airstrikes.
Whether or not the United States intervenes will have major consequences. Barak Mendelsohn of Foreign Affairs, an American magazine and website, thinks this is a win-win for ISIS.
“If the United States fail to protect its allies,” Mendelsohn says, “ISIS forces will be able to advance deep into Kurdish territory and masses of ‘undesirable’ non-Sunni inhabitants will have to flee.”
But is this “timidity” really a worse option than committing to intervention? Mendelsohn continues:
“If the United States decides to step in on behalf of its allies — as it did — then ISIS must believe that it would be able to strengthen its position within the jihadi camp,” he said.
Mendelsohn suggests that if the United States remains involved in the Middle East, ISIS will gain vindication among fellow jihadi extremist groups. This increase in influence and reputation could mean increased power for ISIS in Middle Eastern political affairs. ISIS would be taking a “page right out of al Qaeda’s playbook.”
As the crisis on Sinjar mountain indicates, however, turmoil in Iraq is humanitarian, as well as political. If an emphasis on political stability cannot be made, that is, if it would be militarily dangerous to do so, then an emphasis should be put on humanitarian aid instead. Dropping medical supplies and escorting civilians to safer areas may circumvent crises as severe as what happened on Sinjar mountain.
– Adam Kaminski
Sources: NY Times, Foreign Affairs, Reuters
Photo: NY Post